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Signs of a revival
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS: BENOY K. BEHL
|In the middle of the expanses of Siberia, it is most interesting to come across monks, all of whom speak Hindi as they have received their Buddhist education in India.
SAMYE MONASTERY, CENTRAL TIBET, 8TH CENTURY C.E. This was the first monastery to be established in Tibet. It was founded by Shantarakshita, who was from Nalanda University in present-day Bihar. The monastery building is designed on the model of the Odantapuri Mahavihara, which was close to Nalanda. This is the only surviving representation of what ancient Indian mahaviharas looked like.
Traders in caravans of ancient times connected China, Europe and India. On these routes, besides the exchange of goods there was the sharing of ideas about the meaning of life and the eternal truths. The concepts that took the deepest root were those of Buddhism, which Indian traders spoke about. They included the concepts of “samsara” and “maya”, the illusory nature of the material world around us. They spoke about the many temptations of the natural world that always led to dissatisfaction and pain and explained that the way to remove the pain of existence was to do away with the desires that caused it. Indic philosophy did not really speak of gods or external forces, but was a science of life.
THOLING MONASTERY, ZANDA, NGARI, WESTERN TIBET, 996 C.E. In the 10th century, King Yeshe Od sent Rinchen Zangpo to Kashmir to acquire knowledge of Buddhism and also bring artists to decorate the 108 monasteries that were built in the trans-Himalayas. The earliest two of these monasteries were Tholing in Tibet and Nyarma in Ladakh, India. These 108 monasteries became the backbone of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayas.
These ideas must have struck deep chords in those who heard them because by the beginning of the First Millennium C.E. many great Buddhist stupas and temples stood in Central Asia and China. Kumarayana from Kashmir was one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of the 4th century. He became the guru of the king of Kucha and later married his daughter, Jiva. Their son was named Kumarajiva.
GUGE CASTLE REMAINS, TSAPARANG, TIBET. The ruins in the barren landscape of western Tibet bring alive the time when Guge was at the heart of a flourishing kingdom. Guge stretched across western Tibet and the Indian territories of Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur.
Princess Jiva took Kumarajiva to Kashmir, the land of his father. There the young boy studied Sanskrit and the Buddhist scriptures for 13 years. On their return to Kucha, Kumarajiva became famous as the finest-ever translator of the Buddhist scriptures. It is believed that China attacked and annexed Kucha as the ruler was keen to take Kumarajiva to his own court. Today, there is a beautiful sculpture of Kumarajiva installed by the Chinese government in front of the Kizil Caves near Kucha. There also stands a large temple dedicated many centuries ago to the white horse that Kumarajiva rode.
JOKHANG TEMPLE, LHASA, TIBET, FOUNDED IN THE 7TH CENTURY. This temple was founded during the reign of King Songsten Gampo. According to tradition, the king had two Buddhist brides, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang ynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal.
Lotus Sutra and other translations of Kumarajiva remain extremely popular in China. Others too have translated the same sutras, but it is said that there is a poetic quality and charm in Kumarajiva’s writings which the later translations do not have.
DUNGKAR CAVES, WESTERN TIBET, C. 10TH CENTURY C.E. Caves with extensive wall paintings were discovered at this remote site in the early 1990s. These paintings are possibly the oldest and the most untouched murals in all of Tibet. Dungkar is approximately 40 kilometres north of Zhada town.
In the 8th century, Santaraksita from Nalanda University in Bihar built the first monastery in Tibet. However, he found that the people of the Tibetan plateau continued to live in fear of evil spirits and would not easily take to Buddhism. In 747 C.E., at his suggestion, Guru Padmasambhava, also of Nalanda University, was invited to help spread the Buddhist faith in Tibet. The story of Padmasambhava’s conversion of the people of the trans-Himalayan lands is the greatest epic story of the entire region. The Guru swept across the mountains, performing the Cham, or the monastic dance of the lamas, with which he purified the land and established Buddhism. The faith continues to flourish in the lands he visited, including Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
PAINTED INTERIOR, SOUTH FACING CAVE 1, DUNGKAR. These murals were made during the 10th and 11th centuries by Kashmiri painters or those who were trained by them. This was during the period of “The Second Great Coming of Buddhism” in the trans-Himalayas initiated by King Yeshe Od of Guge.
When King Yeshe Od (947-1024) came to the throne of Guge, his kingdom consisted of the present Indian territories of Ladakh, Spiti and Kinnaur and Guge and Purang in western Tibet. By then, Buddhism had declined in the trans-Himalayas.
ELEVEN-HEADED AVALOKETISWARA, MURAL, DUNGKAR CAVES. The figures and motifs rendered on the walls of these caves retain a spontaneous joy and grace characteristic of the early Indian and Indian-influenced art. The art is similar to that in monasteries of the 10th-12th centuries in India, including Alchi, Mangyu, Sumda, Tabo, Lhalung and Nako.
What troubled the king most was that even the little religion that was practised in small pockets was a decadent and corrupted form of the original faith. Around 975 C.E., the king sent 21 young scholars to Kashmir, at that time one of the greatest centres of Buddhism, to learn about the pure faith and to bring back that knowledge and the scriptures. These young men, full of zeal, set out on what was a long and difficult journey. Nineteen of them died in the travel to and from Kashmir.
SHIVA AND PARVATI, MURAL, KIZIL CAVES, KUCHA, CHINA, C. 6TH CENTURY. Hindu deities are commonly seen in the art of the Buddhist caves in India and other countries across Asia. We are reminded of the cosmopolitan culture of the ancient times when Hindu kings often patronised Buddhist caves and art. Ancient inscriptions also show that the wives of Hindu kings in India often worshipped the Buddha or a Jaina Tirtankara.
One of the two scholars who survived the journey and returned after 17 years, Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), became famous as Lohtsawa, “The Great Translator”. He supervised the construction of many monasteries and temples, exquisite and brilliant jewels of the faith set in the midst of the vast spaces of the trans-Himalayan desert.
INTERIOR OF MOGAO CAVE NO. 45, DUNHUANG, CHINA. Buddhist cave art, which originated in India in the 3rd century C.E., travelled to Bamiyan, Kucha-Kizil, Turfan and Dunhuang. Buddhist caves were excavated for meditation and as retreats for monks. Around 492 Mogao caves survive as repositories of the artistic traditions of ancient and medieval China. Approximately 25,000 square metres of wall paintings and more than 3,000 painted sculptures make this one of the most valuable sites of Buddhist art.
As many as 108 monasteries were believed to have been constructed in this period in the kingdom of Guge. King Yeshe Od and the subsequent kings who continued his work invited artists from Kashmir to build the monasteries and make the marvelous paintings and sculptures inside them. The painters and sculptors brought with them a highly sophisticated form of art deeply rooted in the classical Sanskrit texts of India. They also trained local artists as can be seen in the marvelous blending of the local idioms with the developed styles of Kashmir.
BEZEKLIK CAVES, CHINA. The 77 Bezeklik Caves date from the 5th to the 14th century. The site lies between the cities of Turfan and Shanshan (Loulan), north-east of the Taklamakan desert. It would have been on the northern Silk Route.
The earliest surviving paintings in Tibet, of perhaps the 11th century, are found in the Dungkar Caves, in a very remote part of western Tibet. These paintings were made either by Kashmiri painters or by those trained by them.
KIZIL CAVES, KUCHA. Kucha was one of the greatest Buddhist centres in Central Asia in the first half of the first millennium. There are 236 caves at Kizil, with paintings that date from the 3rd to the 9th century. Stylistically, they are a blend of Indian, Iranian and Chinese influences. These are among the best early paintings that survive in present-day China.
The northernmost lands that Buddhism reached were Buryatia in Siberia and Mongolia. By the 13th century, Vajrayana Buddhism had taken deep root in Mongolia. The greatest Buddhist king of Mongolia was Zanabazar, of the 17th century. Besides being the builder of many temples, he was himself a great artist. The finest Buddhist art that survives in Mongolia was made by him. He was deeply devoted to the deity Tara, and many of the finest images he made were of her.
STATUE OF KUMARAJIVA, KIZIL CAVES. Kumarajiva (4th century) was the son of Kumarayana, a Pandit from Kashmir and the royal teacher at Kucha, who married Princess Jiva of Kucha. At a very young age Kumarajiva was taken to Kashmir, the land of his father, to learn Sanskrit and the Buddhist scriptures. He returned to Kucha to become the greatest translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese.
Buddhism came to Buryatia in the middle of the 17th century from Mongolia and Tibet. By 1741, Buddhism was recognised as one of the national religions of Russia. Buddhist temples became centres of learning where Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mongolian languages and manuscripts were studied. In Soviet times, these Buddhist temples were all destroyed.
COLOSSAL BUDDHA, BINGLING SI, CHINA. Bingling Si is a series of natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River, with Buddhist sculptures. It lies just north of where the Yellow River empties into the Liujiaxia reservoir in Gansu province, some 100 km south-east of Lanzhou. The caves were sculpted over a period of more than a millennium, beginning around 420 C.E.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Buddhism is being revived in Buryatia. In the middle of the expanses of Siberia, it is most interesting to come across monks, all of whom speak Hindi as they have received their Buddhist education in India. It is wonderful to see the revival of this vision of life, of the search for the truth beyond the illusory nature of the material world, in these lands so distant from where Buddhism was born.
THREE-EYED GANESA, TANGKHA, LATE 19TH CENTURY, BOGD KHAN PALACE MUSEUM, ULAANBAATAR. Ganesa, one of the popular deities of Hindu art, features often in Buddhist art of all countries.
By the 17th-18th centuries, the Russian region of Kalmykia, south of the Volga river, had become the first Buddhist part of Europe. Kalmykia was on a northern branch of the Silk Route. Here, too, after Soviet times, Buddhism has seen a revival. Lamas from Ladakh conduct religious ceremonies for the reverential people of Kalmykia.
AKSHOBHYA, 17TH CENTURY, ZANABAZAR MUSEUM, ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA. These gentle figures have an inward look and lead us on a journey to the treasure to be found inside us.
DAKINI WITH OFFERINGS, MINERAL PIGMENT ON CLOTH, ZANABAZAR MUSEUM. Such celestial beings carrying flowers, garlands and other offerings for the divine are depicted often in Buddhist art. This tradition is seen from the middle of the first millennium in the caves of Maharashtra.
WHITE TARA, 17TH CENTURY, MADE BY KING ZANABAZAR, ZANABAZAR MUSEUM, ULAANBAATAR. The King was a very devoted and skilled artist in line with the Buddhist tradition, spiritual thought and personal emancipation being its most important aims.
ATISA, GOLDEN ABODE OF SHAKYAMUNI TEMPLE, ELISTA, KALMYKIA, RUSSIA. The temple honours 17 great acharyas of the Nalanda University tradition. Atisa was born in Bengal, studied at Nalanda and in Indonesia and taught Buddhism in Tibet. His work is regarded as a cornerstone of Buddhism in Tibet.
ZORIK LAMA, ONE OUT OF MANY WHO STUDIED IN INDIA, AT IVOLGA MONASTERY, BURYATIA, RUSSIA. It is wonderful to see how, as in ancient times, India is once again the cradle of Buddhist learning. Even up to the 12th century, students from many Asian countries used to study at Nalanda and Vikramshila Universities.
MONGOLIAN GANJUR, SACRED BUDDHIST TEXT, ULAN UDE, BURYATIA, RUSSIA, 18TH CENTURY. Vajrayana Buddhism spread to Buryatia in Siberia from Mongolia. This would be the northernmost spread of Buddhism in Asia.
INTERIOR, KHURUL, A BUDDHIST TEMPLE IN AARSHAAN, NEAR ELISTA, KALMYKIA, RUSSIA. This vast and beautiful interior follows exactly the traditions of Buddhist temples in the trans-Himalayan regions of India and Tibet. It symbolises the spread of the philosophic and artistic ideas of Vajrayana Buddhism.
PEOPLE OF KALMYKIA RECEIVING BLESSINGS OF A LADAKHI LAMA, ELISTA. Buddhist traditions know no boundaries. Here, Indian lamas bless Russian Buddhists. The new temples rely upon these Indian lamas, mainly from Ladakh.
GOLDEN ABODE OF SHAKYAMUNI TEMPLE, KALMYKIA. By the 17th-18th centuries, the region of Kalmykia, south of the Volga river, had become the first Buddhist part of Europe. The tradition was destroyed during the Soviet times. This recently made temple has become a great symbol of the Buddhist traditions of Kalmykia.
GINKAKU-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO, JAPAN, 15TH CENTURY. The temple has many beautiful trees and a variety of mosses. The philosophy and aesthetics developed in the early Buddhist traditions have been nurtured best here. More than any other in the world, the culture of Japan is deeply sensitive to the harmony and beauty in everything around us.
KINKAKU-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO, 14TH CENTURY. The Kinkaku-ji Temple, known as the Golden Pavilion, is set in beautiful surroundings. It is a fine example of the aesthetics integral to the understanding of the peace and harmony of the whole of creation. Japan is the most distant land to have made Buddhism its own and the tradition has flourished there over many